Sunday, July 31, 2011

Doug Groothuis Sermon On Line

My sermon on the problem of evil is up at Scum of the Earth Church web page.

No Words

A memory from long ago visits me unbidden from time to time. I was almost twelve years old in my home town of Anchorage, Alaska in 1968. These were bad times. My father had been recently killed in an airplane accident at Point Barrow, Alaska, while volunteering for a state labor omission. My mother and I (and perhaps another person) went to the Safeway where we often shopped. My mother's eyes meet those of a female worker there. They immediately embraced, wept, looked at each other again, and went their separate ways. No words were spoken.

You see, the grocery worker was good friends with Violet Dodge, who represented the union of the grocery workers, who was in same plane that went down with my father on board. No words were needed; perhaps, no words were possible. I wish my mother were still alive so I could ask her about this event. I'm not sure we ever spoke it afterward.

How many sacred events do we sully with silly or needless words? Some lament needs no words, no words at all.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Apologetics Textbook

My book, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith is now available for purchase as an -e-book at Google Books. The hard copy just arrived in the warehouse at InterVarsity Press, so it should be available through Amazon, etc., earlier than anticipated.

I have often said that if I were not convinced intellectually that Christianity is true, I would not have remained a Christian through all the suffering of recent years. But it is true, so I continue to stagger through this broken world under the sun, knowing that there is more than meets the eye and that the New Heavens and New Earth await me and all the redeemed.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dogs, Despair

Despair, you dog my days;
but dogs, you dispel my despair
(for a moment

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Empathy Machine: An Unfinished Essay

This is a thought experiment. Thought experiments have a long and checkered history in philosophy, and I cannot explore their nature or purpose in depth. (In fact, the protocol, propriety, and purposes of thought experiences are not entirely clear to me.) Suffice it to say that the features of a thought experiment need not be realizable, but they must be logically possible or at least imaginable. A thought experiment should also make some point not easy or possibly seen otherwise. Consider Plato’s myth, “The Ring of Gyges. It is unlikely anyone will ever become literally invisible, but we can well imagine what it would be like to be in this state and how it might affect one’s conduct.

The Empathy Machine

What if someone invented a device that could convincingly capture the subjective experience of a person and then transfer those experiences into someone else’s consciousness? A movie called “Brain Storms” described such a machine, but did not capitalize on the empathy theme, but rather (not surprisingly) experiences of sex and—more importantly—of death. The empathy machine resembles Robert Nozik’s thought experiment involving the famous “experience machine,” which he concocted in order to argue for the deficiencies of one type of utilitarianism. That machine enables one to experience all the happiness one desired—all without any connection to a real, objective, external world—the world of things, people, nature, and so on. If one would not be hooked up to the experience machine at the expense of participation in the world of sense and embodiment, there is something deeply wrong with the axiology of utilitarianism.[i]

But let us revise Nozik’s thought experiment—turn it on its head, so to speak. The empathy machine records what is otherwise nearly inexpressible or at least inarticulate in the mouths of most of us. It records pain—pain and distress of every kind under the sun. When one is hooked up to the empathy machine, there is a radical shift from the third-person and second-person to the first-person; from propositional knowledge to experiential knowledge (or Russell’s “knowledge by acquaintance”); from hearing about pain and observing pain to being in pain and thus knowing it from the inside out. It is a shift from being-near to being-there.

The empathy machine does not generate pleasure, as does Woody Allen’s fictional “orgasmatron” from his film, “Sleeper.” Quite the opposite; it produces pain, but not pain in the sense of actual torture. Torture produces pain, my pain. I can, though, in this state identify and empathize with others similarly tormented. The empathy machine allows one to participate in the sensorium of another’s distress without physical torture or deprivation. Moreover, one can leave the empathy machine at will. It is not inflicted on anyone, but it can be chosen. For example, a husband can enter the empathy machine to experience the full force of his wife’s chronic illnesses—from the inside out. For a set period of time, he will feel all the muscle pain, weakness, fatigue, depression, despair, confusion, self-loathing, and shattered dreams. He cannot, by entering the machine, log her long years of discontent, but he can taste fully what these years have brought to her consciousness, both mentally and physically. He retains his identity, but he takes on crucial aspects of her experience subjectively through a kind of inter-subjectivity. In a sense, he takes on a secondary first-person identity (or at least experience). To invoke something from popular culture, consider a “Vulcan mind meld.” The character Spock in “Star Trek” is capable of tapping into another’s mind and (if I’m not mistaken) even experiencing that person’s feelings to some degree.

None of the four classical virtues (prudence, courage, self-control, and justice) or the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) directly implicate empathy, although love comes the closest. In order to love, one must reach out of oneself and, to some degree, reach into another person. One imagines what (say) chronic illnesses or a terminal illness or the loss of a child must be like. Then one can attempt to express an informed and heart-felt concern (that is, love) for that person in that state—however foreign it may be to one’s own first-person experiences.

I have not found very much on empathy as a virtue in the literature of moral philosophy. Of course, I may simply have missed this. But it seems that those interested in virtue theory would be the more likely to reflect on this state of being than would those explicating deontology or consequentialism. William Frankena, who is principally a deontologist who gives place to virtues in a secondary sense, speaks of the need for “benevolence” to motivate one to duty. In this connection, he cites statements by Josiah Royce and William James. First, Royce’s reflections:

What then is thy neighbor? He too is a mass of states, of experiences, thoughts and desires, just as concrete, as thou art. . . . Dost thou believe this? Art thou sure what it means? This is for thee the turning point of thy whole conduct towards him.[ii]

William James writes this:

This higher vision of an inner significance in what, until then, we had realized only in the dead external way, often comes over a person suddenly; and, when it does so, it makes an epoch in his history.[iii]

Both Royce and James, then, attribute to these empathic experiences a kind of moral epiphany, a quantum leap forward in moral awareness and moral virtue. Time spent in the empathy machine would increase this kind of awareness astronomically.

If one decided to embark on a voyage into another person’s pain, one would set oneself up in antithesis to any hedonic theory of value. Inside the empathy machine, pain is multiplied, not pleasure.

The Metaphysics of Persons and the Empathy Machine

For the experience machine to work, a particular ontology of persons must be in place. Any worldview that denies the reality of persons as genuine substances who endure over time and who experience life in the irreducibly first-person singular mode cannot employ this thought experiment to any benefit. Consider nondualism and Theravada Buddhism. Nondualism denies the reality of individual, separable selves. The only reality is Nirguna Brahman (God without qualities). For nondualists, such as Sankara, first-person awareness is ultimately maya or illusion. Enlightenment delivers one from such experiential limits through a “cognition of the infinite.” That is, one knows oneself as infinite—an experience that transcends any of the limits and suffering of maya-ridden existence. On this ontology, there is no reason to enter empathetically into the illusions of others. One’s own illusions are sufficient to drive one to a supposedly higher state of ultimate awareness—one in which there is no “other” whatsoever. Mutatis mutandus, Theravada Buddhism also denies the reality of the individual self, but through another metaphysic wherein there is precisely no self at all (instead of the singular, impersonal, and all-absorbing Brahman).

So, it seems that the empathy machine is only desirable as an exercise in gaining moral knowledge given some substantial view of the self in world of other selves. Otherwise, one cannot stipulate the objective existence of irreducible others who become the subject of one’s own experience. The nondualist and Buddhist would only gain a first-person knowledge of the illusion of the first person experience in another. They would not gain knowledge conducive to moral growth in virtue.

Those holding worldviews that affirm the existence of individual selves which can grow in moral knowledge should consider the implication of the empathy machine. One would need courage to enter this machine, even for a brief period of time. Likewise, one would need wisdom, since gratuitous (or at least misguided) suffering is obviously not its purpose; nor is the perverse gratification of masochists.

Entering the Empathy Machine

Consider an example of someone who should consider entering the machine. John, a bright and intellectual adventurous fellow, is told repeatedly by close friends and his spouse that he tends to be impatient and rude with slow-witted or mentally retarded people. They are often the butt of his jokes and he steers clear of them, even those who are apart of his own extended family. But John experiences something of a moral epiphany through an accident. After checking out of the supermarket with his friend, he makes a disparaging remark about the bagger, who obviously has Down’s syndrome. To John’s surprise and horror, the female bagger hears his comment, loudly announces that she is quite competent at her job (“I’m a good worker, even though I’m not like you!”), and then breaks into tears and runs away. Several strangers observe the scene and stare at John with scornful amazement. For a brief moment, John inhabits a new moral world—that of the other. He begins to wonder what it would be like have a mental handicap, to know it, and to live in world where most others do not share this condition.

John is thus a good candidate for some time in the empathy machine, with the dial set to “mental limitation.” But not only would John experience the diminishment of his prized wit and intelligence, he would also experience memories of being taunted as a child, being left out of social gatherings, and the experience of being ridiculed by a bright and insensitive man (like John himself).

If my argument is sound, anyone in reasonably good health and with the appropriate worldview (see above) and who lacks empathy should consider entering the empathy machine. Short of having such a machine, one can use one’s imagination to enter into the subjective pain of others. This is profoundly anhedonic; it is not done for any immediately felt pleasure, but for the purpose of growing in moral awareness, knowledge, and character growth.

[i] See Robert Nozick, “The Experience Machine” in Louis Pojman, Moral Philosophy.

[ii] William Frankena, Ethics 2nd ed. (Prentice-Hall, 1973), 69.

[iii] Ibid.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Benefit of the Doubt and the Chronically Ill

Misunderstanding destroys or injures relationships. We need knowledge in order to love others wisely. We also need to trust people's judgments--even in some cases when we do not understand their reasoning. This is especially true for the chronically ill.

The normal person cannot fathom why a plethora of "normal" things bother someone with chemical and environment sensitivies, for example. So, the normal person assume that the ill person is just fussy or hypochondriacal. But remember: the sick person tends to be an expert in their sickness. They have studied it, lived with it, wanted to die from it. Therefore, when they give you advice or ask for you to not wear perfume or use a particular soap or even shaving cream: Believe Them. Please, in the name of the God of all compassion, do not get angry or judge them or question them. Do you think they would make this up when it causes themselves and others so much difficulty?

Listen to the chronically ill in love and with patience. When you fail them, ask for forgiveness. Amend your ways and go out of your way for one of "the least of these" (Matthew 25). "Love is patient. Love is kind"--I Corinthians 13.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Loss of Friendship

Several years ago, a group of my students wrote a letter of affirmation for me and to me. It used a number of superlatives, which, I take it, expressed the sentiments one lead student.

Now, years later, I read that statement with divided emotions. I am grateful that these students expressed their thanks to me in this endearing and enduring way, hyperbole aside. Yet, as I look down the roster of names, I find a few close friends; but only a few of these students are still in contact with me; some I have not heard from in years; and at least one, I'm sure, would like to remove his or her name from the letter at this point, largely because of disagreements with me that emerged over the years.

Friendship is fragile. Affirmations of praise are easy to give, if one has the facility. Effusion is easier than commitment. The Bible speaks of a friend who is closer than a sibling. But this is so rare nowadays. How can it be recovered?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bereavement: Thoughts on Missing My Mother

Bereavement feels the presence of absence,
and the absence of presence.

My loved one is gone,
but here, with me (in absence).

What an odd sensation,
invoking loneliness (she is gone),
fondness (I loved her),
and disorientation (I am not the same without her),
all at the same time.